Idealising & Procrastination (Quora)

Quora question asked by Anonymous: Why don’t I make the right thing, even if I know what to do in order to become the person I want to be?

“I know I have to study and work hard in order to be a successful person. Still, I procrastinate. Another example: I’m reading a beautiful book, Wittgenstein’s Lectures. It’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve read this year. Still I keep on playing video games. How can I overcome this self-destructing process?”

I think this is a fairly common, certainly something I’ve experienced at times in my own life, so thought I’d post my response here as well:

Mental stimulation of any kind has a relationship with the reward system in the brain—where dopamine and other pleasure-associated chemicals are produced. The reward system exists to reinforce healthy and productive human behaviour by (basically) creating a pleasurable association with it. This association is built in part by the perceived reward of the behaviour in the mind, and in part by the chemical interaction in the brain.

Having an inbuilt reinforcement system is crucial because it structures human behaviour around social requirements, tying people to whatever role they’re suited to by literally making it feel better than doing something else. Only thing is, the reward system wasn’t evolved for modern society; it was evolved to suit the environment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, which were a helluva lot more manual in nature than our own. Healthy and rewarding behaviour in a small tribe would be much easier to perceive than it is today—nutrition, ritual, shelter and security were clearly defined requirements with simple roles needed to maintain them.

Compared to our ancestors, modern society is covered by a thick layer of luxury, entertainment, technology, systems and automation. There’s a negative correlation between advances in technology and human requirement, and human requirement is directly tied to our sense of social value—something key when it comes to making conscious choices about what we do with ourselves. You may enjoy doing a particular task, but chances are, there’s very little social imperative that you complete it. Many gifted people (and narcissists) feel they have talent they are responsible for developing and disseminating into the world, but most of us, deep down, know our value is self-propelled. Which is fine by the way; it means we have infinitely greater choice with our lives than ever before.

The lessening human requirement means an increased need for human distraction, which has been increasingly provided by things like  entertainment, socialising and personal indulgence. These are all pleasure-riddled arenas that directly target the reward system, causing strong positive associations with activities that were really just intended to fill our existential void. In your situation I believe this may be playing a foundational role; atop this is plain-old idealism.

Rewarding behaviour doesn’t just exist in the physical world; mental simulation can be equally as strong, especially if we haven’t bonded with productive external activities thanks to having an Xbox. We can be as entertained and lazy as we like but the vast majority of us will still have positive and socially beneficial interests, so no matter how immobile we become, our minds still need to satisfy urges to accomplish meaningful goals. The reward system is finite—it can only go so far—so if there’s already been a huge allocation given to marijuana or World of Warcraft, you’re much more likely to relegate the ambition to an idealistic fantasy, simulating the journey of development and success in your head. This then becomes a habit pattern itself, which is where I believe you may find yourself based on your circumstance.

I’ve been there too, and it’s theoretically very easy to overcome. Mindfulness, discipline, support and routine are all crucial to becoming more behaviourally aligned with your ambitions, and these are all very developable.

Best of luck :-)